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No quarter for centrists in House: 2020 Vote Studies

With parties more united than ever, moderation doesn’t sell like it used to

Collin C. Peterson was the second-least loyal House Democrat in 2020, but that couldn't keep him from losing big in his deep-red Minnesota district.
Collin C. Peterson was the second-least loyal House Democrat in 2020, but that couldn't keep him from losing big in his deep-red Minnesota district. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

During 15 House terms, Collin C. Peterson demonstrated a rapport with the voters of Minnesota’s vast 7th District, and his seniority enabled him to deliver for them in a way few representatives can, as chairman of the Agriculture Committee.

His loss in last year’s election is a harbinger. The days when local politics were more important than party labels are over, and the final holdouts, even those who’d long overcome politics’ nationalization, are falling.

In CQ Roll Call’s 2020 analyses of party unity and presidential support voting, Peterson was the second most likely Democrat to back Donald Trump’s position on House votes and the second most likely to break with his fellow Democrats on partisan votes. (Party unity votes split a majority of one party against a majority of the other, while presidential support votes are ones in which the president has taken a clear position.)

But that didn’t matter in the 2020 election. With the 7th’s rural voters in thrall to Trump, Peterson, a founding member of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, was swept out of office in a landslide. He lost by 13.5 points to Republican Michelle Fischbach, whose support for Trump’s confrontational trade policy toward China resonated among the district’s corn and soybean farmers.

“The partisan tilt of this district was just too much to overcome,” Peterson said after his loss. That’s coming from someone who’d overcome that tilt for years.

Centrism doesn’t sell like it used to. Of the 13 Democrats to lose their seats in the 2020 general election, eight were among the most independent members of the House, according to CQ Roll Call’s 2020 analyses. They included freshman Ben McAdams of Utah, the only Democrat to cross party lines and vote more often with Trump than Peterson. “People who know me and my track record as a centrist and independent were concerned about the broader message of the Democratic Party,” McAdams said in explaining his loss.

By contrast, a number of Democrats in tough reelection races — such as Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Katie Porter of California — took a different tack, capitalizing on the nationalization of congressional races. They voted almost always with their fellow Democrats, opposed Trump and were rewarded by activist Democratic donors from outside their districts. They had enormous war chests as they sought reelection, and they survived.

Party unity voting goes up

The realization that there appears to be dwindling political benefit in centrism and significant financial upside in party loyalty is driving up the level of party unity voting, while keeping down presidential support among representatives in the opposite party of the president. 

The pandemic sent representatives home for over a month starting in March 2020 and, even with a new allowance for proxy voting, lawmakers missed more votes than they typically do. Speaker Nancy Pelosi also reduced the number of floor votes considerably last year, to 253 from 701 in 2019. Those that did make it to the floor were measures with a real chance of enactment or important messaging bills, like the virus relief bills Democrats passed in May and October and the policing bill they passed in June.

So even as Democratic lawmakers in tough races, like Peterson and McAdams, were moving right, the Democratic Caucus as a whole remained overwhelmingly united. The median Democrat voted with his or her party on votes that split a majority of Democrats from a majority of Republicans 99 percent of the time, while the average Democratic representative was at 98 percent when missed votes are excluded. These were record levels.

This resulted in few embarrassments for Pelosi and a smoothly operating floor. The Democrats got their way on 168 of 176 party unity votes for a winning percentage of 95.5 percent, only topped in the 60-year history of CQ Roll Call’s study by 2019’s 96.2 percent.

Support among Democratic representatives for Trump’s positions ticked up to 16 percent for the votes on which Trump expressed a view, from 5 percent in 2019. With the president continuing to take few positions on policy matters — he urged lawmakers to vote one way or another on 40 of the House’s 253 votes — it only took a few bipartisan measures to cause that increase. Those came mainly on coronavirus relief bills and a measure to fund maintenance at national parks.

The election was a blow to House Democrats, who saw their majority dwindle to nine seats from 35. But the continuing shift toward more partisan voting means that it’s still unlikely that Pelosi will lose control of the floor or suffer embarrassing defeats in 2021 because members of her caucus vote with Republicans. Indeed, the level of party unity voting may rise with many of the most independent-minded lawmakers gone and a new Democratic president, Joe Biden, driving Democratic unity.

Another factor that will help Pelosi: The House’s adoption in January of new rules that limit Republicans’ ability to offer “motions to recommit.” Of the eight party unity votes on which Republicans prevailed in 2020, three were on such motions, which added last-minute amendments to bills. 

These were minor victories that changed, but did not stop, Democratic legislation, as when Republicans last March succeeded in adding a provision barring the hiring of Transportation Security Administration officers with a history of sexual misconduct to a bill establishing workplace rights for the officers. House Democrats suffered no major defeats in floor votes in 2020, a testament to Pelosi’s focus on bills that could unite her caucus and avoidance of others, like the Green New Deal or “Medicare for All,” that would likely have divided it.

Democrats remained unified when they passed a $1.9 trillion virus relief bill on Feb. 27 by a vote of 219-212. Only two Democrats, Jared Golden of Maine and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, blanched at the measure’s largesse. By contrast, when the House voted on its $3.4 trillion HEROES Act in May 2020, 14 Democrats defected. In October, when it passed a slimmed-down $2.2 trillion bill, 18 did.

So long as Democrats can remain unified, the fact that Republicans do as well is irrelevant in the House, where a simple majority can pass bills.

After the Democrats’ election losses last year, moderate survivors like Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger castigated progressive colleagues for pushing to “defund” the police and for embracing socialist policies. But Spanberger has broken with Democratic colleagues only once so far this year, and her party unity score of 97 percent is 11 points higher than it was in 2020.

Impact at ballot box 

Peterson offers Spanberger a cautionary tale. He sided with fellow Democrats just 76 percent of the time in 2020 and backed Trump 35 percent of the time. For years, Minnesota’s 7th had given him overwhelming victory margins. Even as the district grew more and more friendly to Republican presidential candidates, Peterson outpaced his party’s presidential nominees.

The son of a farmer, Peterson “fit personally and culturally the traditional [Democratic-Farmer-Labor] profile in western Minnesota,” said David Sturrock, a political science professor at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall who lost to Peterson in the 2004 general election.

Peterson’s focus on agriculture policy squared with the district’s needs, and he parted with Democrats on abortion and gun rights along with his rural constituents. He even learned to fly to get around his massive district, which stretches from the Canadian border nearly to Iowa, impressing voters. 

As recently as 2008, Peterson took 72 percent of the vote in the district to Barack Obama’s 47 percent. But Peterson’s margins started to slip after that, to 60 percent in 2012, 53 percent in 2016 and then collapsed to last year’s 40 percent. Peterson topped Biden’s 34 percent by more than five points, but it was not enough.

Sturrock started noticing worrisome slippage in Peterson’s support in 2014, when a Republican wave sent the party back into the Senate majority. “Elections are getting nationalized even though it overcomes a lot of history, personalities and tradition,” he said. 

The stability of the region’s farm economy also has meant that rural voters are less concerned about a government backstop and were less impressed with Peterson’s chairmanship. Culturally, the region is only getting more removed from the Democratic Party’s base in the cities. Trump exploited those differences to Peterson’s disadvantage.

“Peterson had influence and he used it skillfully in Washington, but that doesn’t necessarily win you points back home,” Sturrock said. “There’s that anti-Washington sentiment: ‘Oh, you are part of the swamp.’ It’s very intense now, and it hurt him.”  

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